In November 1993, Dan Duquette, then the general manager of the Montreal Expos, traded second baseman Delino DeShields to the Los Angeles Dodgers for a young pitcher by the name of Pedro Martinez. According to a story in last Sunday’s New York Times, upon completing the deal, Duquette, now general manager of the Baltimore Orioles, told Neal Huntington, then a member of the Expos front office and now the general manager of the Pittsburgh Pirates, “This trade is going to be hated in Montreal.”
Twenty years later, Duquette has completed a trade that has Orioles fans in Baltimore on the verge of hating unless some other shoes fall — quickly and efficiently. Late Monday night, just prior to MLB’s midnight deadline for tendering contracts to arbitration-eligible players, the Orioles dealt closer Jim Johnson to the Oakland Athletics for infielder Jemile Weeks and a player to be named later. In doing so, Duquette has rid himself of the major-league saves leader over the past two seasons, as well as the obligation of having to pay Johnson the $10 to $11 million he would have been in line to receive for his pending free agent season of 2014.
Everybody who has viewed this deal is calling it what it is — a salary dump. Duquette is calling it a resource allocation. How he allocates, or is allowed to allocate the resources of Orioles owner Peter Angelos will determine how this deal is perceived for years to come.
Orioles fans, many of whom wanted Johnson’s head on a stick for leading the big leagues in blown saves in 2013, are suddenly up in arms that all 101 successful saves over the past two seasons could muster is yet another middle infielder, who is regarded as neither a starter nor a prospect, as well as a player to be named later. With the Orioles in very touchy territory as far as catcher Matt Wieters’ next contract is concerned, perhaps that player to be named later will be Crash Davis since they might need another switch-hitting catcher. So is this the direction this club is again headed?
Baseball fans are the most fickle fans in the world because baseball is the most personal game in the world. It’s not like football, basketball or hockey in that when your favorite team wins in those sports it provides a feeling of great rush and superiority. When your team wins in baseball, it’s as though a member of your own family has accomplished something wonderful. You follow your team and its players every day and night for six months, so you fall under the false, yet comforting, pretense that you know them and that they know you.
The other side of that is it also gives you the right, as a baseball fan and a member of the family, to be rather harsh on these players when times aren’t the best. Beginning in mid-summer, if I had a hunk of money for every time I heard a furious Orioles fan say, “Johnson won’t ever be worth the $10 million they’ll have to pay him, make Tommy Hunter the closer,” I might just have $10 million of my own.
Well, be careful what you wish for because left-handed batters beat on Tommy Hunter as though he owes them $10 million.
Is Johnson worth that kind of money? Really, who is? But the fact remains he had more saves in each of the past two seasons than any other big league closer. Doesn’t that merit some sort of reward? Not in professional sports where there exist salary caps, luxury taxes and greedy owners of baseball teams and cash-cow networks to fuel their teams and their own finances.
Closers have been and will be replaced for as long as there is baseball, unless, of course, you’re Mariano Rivera. Over 90 percent of them are expendable and, certainly, the Orioles have to have the money in budget to pay the likes of Chris Davis, Wieters, an outfielder or designated hitter, a starting pitcher, (another) second baseman and now a closer.
The trade of Jim Johnson can be viewed in many different ways, but it ultimately depends on what comes next. Duquette has the track record for making things come next, and making them come with great success. But so, too, does Angelos have a history of sitting on his money after, early in his tenure, throwing it at players as though his name were Steinbrenner.
The most disturbing early perception of this deal for Orioles fans, even those who forget the summer nights they spent chasing Johnson through the streets with torches and pitchforks, is that the Orioles just don’t want to pay. Which, if this is the case, would produce an even newer low in an ownership tenure that has had many ups, but many more downs, seemingly fueled by decisions of greed.
The Orioles are a healthy franchise once more. They are a winning franchise, thanks to Duquette, manager Buck Showalter and, yes, owner Peter Angelos. Fans have returned to the ballpark, the MASN network pays a lot of bills and, seemingly, should buy a lot of happiness. Orioles fans deserve that happiness, but Orioles fans, some of whom for which this winning thing remains very new, have to remember, when you demand a man’s head on a platter, that platter may eventually be delivered. So when it is, be prepared to accept what comes in return, and what comes to replace it.
Remember this when over-used Matt Wieters, the best defensive catcher in baseball with good power, hits .235 again.
Mike Burke is sports editor of the Cumberland Times-News. Write to him at email@example.com